Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The Song of the Indian Wars is an epic of westward expansion and the displacement of Native Americans after the end of the American Civil War—one of the great archetypal movements in the history of the world. White people with their dreams are migrating into the vast expanses of a land that is new to them but ancient and holy to Indians. The poem is a record of a confrontation with tragic overtones for both parties.

The story is told impersonally but with an overriding compassion for both sides. It avoids stereotypes and alternates between the viewpoints of Indians and whites, both involved in a struggle neither fully understands. For the Indians it is the end of sacred things and the dwindling of holy places; for the whites it is the promise of a land “clad with grains,/ Jewelled with orchard.” For Indians it involves displacement from their homeland, for whites an unexplored frontier to be conquered and settled. Neihardt saw the Indian Wars as a confrontation between the old and the new, a “watershed of history.” It is a struggle fraught with tragedy: the wounded and dead in the massacre of Crazy Horse’s village and the vast expanse of white bodies strewn across the valley at the Little Big Horn.

Blair Whitney, in John G. Neihardt (1976), sees in this epic the fulfillment of the destiny of a race (whites of European descent) and the triumph—for good or ill—of Western civilization. The struggle brings out the...

(The entire section is 567 words.)